Global environmental challenges
Environmentalists to use new Google 3D Trees mapping tool to preserve forests
Environmentalists have long used Google Earth to keep tabs on mountaintop mining and to monitor deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Now with the release Monday of the latest version of Google’s virtual world maps, they’ll be able to literally see the trees in the forest — in 3D.
Among other new features, Google Earth 6 has initially mapped more than 80 million trees in seven cities, from olive groves in Athens to the flowering dogwoods of Tokyo. Viewers can also fly through a section of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
“Google wants to create a more accurate and real model of the world and we want to make sure we’re adding in more information to make the planet more alive and more complete,” Peter Birch, product manager for Google Earth, said in an interview. “Trees provide context wherever you go and this allows you to tell the story of forestlands.”
Birch said Google is working with environmental groups, indigenous peoples and government in Africa, Mexico and South America to use the 3D Trees feature in reforestation and conservation projects.
“We’re modeling the saplings they’re planting as well as areas of mature trees, so people can fly around and get idea of what the forest looks like,” he said.
In Mexico, Google is collaborating with CONABIO, the country’s National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity, to map coastal mangrove forests. Brazil’s Surui people are using Google Earth 6 to map trees significant to the tribe. And in Kenya, the Greenbelt Movement will model five forest restoration projects with the Google software.
Google Earth 6 will initially include 50 tree species and map parks and urban areas of Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Tokyo and the University of California campus in Davis, Calif.
While Google has created 3D models of hundreds of thousands of buildings around the world, trees posed a different challenge, according to Birch.
“In a city you might have tens of thousands of building that are unique,” he said. “With trees you have far more of them but the variation between species is far less. We can create lots of copies of a particular species but at a lower cost.”
“To get tree data we’re using images we have and doing an automated process to indentify the trees, where they are and their crown size,” Birch added.
He acknowledged that Google Earth’s initial 80 million virtual trees are “a drop in the bucket” compared to the planet’s billions of trees. But Birch said the addition of 3D trees along with an improved and expanded historical imagery feature will give viewers a more global environmental view, allowing them to watch the retreat of glaciers and deforestation over time.
At least for now, though, Birch won’t be able to see birch trees on Google Earth 6.
(Image courtesy of Google.)